Francesco Galli Zugaro founded Aqua Expeditions 15 years ago to begin exploration of South America by luxury river boat. Since then, his company has steadily expanded across the Pacific and South America, with three river boats and a superyacht dedicated to Indonesian exploration. Aqua has announced the launch of its second superyacht, Aqua Mare, dedicated to luxury charters in the Galapagos Islands, part of Zugaro’s native Ecuador.
Aqua Mare continues Aqua’s blend of single cabin charter and whole-of-yacht charter, opening up remote locations. Zugaro says that he is in the “luxury small ship expedition business.”
From his base in Singapore, Zugaro plans Aqua’s expansion across Pacific. In this interview, Zugaro talks about getting back to business after Covid and his desire to open more luxury charter options in the Aqua way.
What encouraged you to add a charter superyacht (Aqua Mare) to the Galapagos Islands?
FGZ: I have been thinking, dreaming, and working towards a yacht in the Galapagos for a long time. Ever since I left Ecuador in 2006 with the clarity to build my own business, I have wanted to return to the Galapagos Islands with our very own luxury expedition ship. It has been 15 years since we ventured to Peru as a family and then onward to Asia to finally come full circle with Aqua Mare back to where it all started.
We’re catering to a niche audience with small-ship expeditions that present a blend of design, attention to detail, personalised service and adventure. So in that sense, we are carving out a new path in a destination that holds personal significance.
What features were added to Aqua Mare to make her an “Aqua” yacht? What are the aspects of the refurbishment that you are most proud of?
The interior vision for Aqua Mare comes very much from my wife and director at Aqua Expeditions, Birgit. She has a very definite vision of what she wants and what fits with the Aqua Expeditions persona. In collaboration with interior designer David Cole, they paired back the existing interior decorations without losing the luxury of the yacht. Aqua Mare‘s finish is soft and elegant with textures and hues resembling the lava and ash strata indicative of the Galapagos.
My favourite feature must be the Owner’s Suite – the sheer size of 80m2 is truly a luxury. I also really enjoy the bridge with its Italian leather sofas and open bridge policy to witness the navigation between the islands while enjoying a cup of freshly brewed Ecuadorian coffee. We even have a ‘Beach Club’ located at the aft of the lower deck at water level, equipped with a wraparound sofa and large panoramic window for guests to come together and relax while enjoying amazing sunset views.
Aqua Mare‘s finish is soft and elegant with textures and hues resembling the lava and ash strata indicative of the Galapagos.
We spend a lot of time on the art and design of our ships to make sure that every single space on board has been carefully thought through so our guests feel like they are entering their own private home at sea. It’s those personal touches that really set us apart and provide our guests with a yacht experience like no other
How have you been able to recover from Covid lockdowns? Do you feel that boat and yacht charter in APAC is finally getting back to normal?
As a result of the pandemic, we have seen a surge in the appeal of remote, off-the-beaten path destinations, especially those in which travellers can connect with nature and the outdoors. Entering Vietnam and Cambodia for our Aqua Mekong river cruise and Indonesia for our Aqua Blu coastal yacht cruise is now restriction free, making travel accessible once more. Because of these factors, we are thankful that everything appears to be returning to normal. Aqua Blu relaunched in May with great success and Aqua Mekong will return to the Mekong River in September.
In addition to operating a charter business, you were also having river boats and yachts built and refurbished during Covid. Can you describe the main challenges you faced in accomplishing these goals?
More than anything it was the challenge of getting to our destinations. We were trying to buy Aqua Mare in Istanbul, and restrictions and lockdowns made it difficult to navigate. This extended to the rest of the fleet. We needed to get out to the Amazon and Indonesia to make sure that our crew were well looked after and to keep morale up during the difficult time.
How has the experience of Covid changed your vision for Aqua, if at all?
Covid has shown me that more than ever I am committed to the niche tour industry – small ship cruising to remote destinations that are renowned for their spectacular wildlife and natural beauty. This is aligned with the travel behaviour we have seen post Covid – a desire to explore the outdoors in bucket list destinations in small groups.
You now have two superyachts and three riverboats in the Aqua fleet. Do you expect to focus more on the yachting (oceanic) side or the river exploration side in the future?
For now, my interest in coastal yachts and river ships is balanced. We have two stunning explorer yachts (the Aqua Mare and Aqua Blu) and three elegant river vessels (the Aqua Mekong, Aria Amazon and Aqua Nera). Independent from the vessels, my focus is establishing the Aqua brand in these destinations. Bringing luxurious, contemporary design and tailor-made service to these remote destinations and to provide guests with an Aqua experience full of unforgettable memories.
You mentioned in the recent blog post that you originally intended for Aqua Mare to be custom built. Can you describe a little about what the boat would have been like? Do you intend to restart the project now that international travel is starting again?
Yes, we were going to build Aqua Mare from scratch but due to Covid it was not possible to ensure delivery times and control of cost with the disruption of supply lines. I decided not to embark on that path, which could have extended to at least 36 months. It was vital for me that we would be ready to recover as soon as lockdowns eased and confidence in international travel returned. With this in mind, we had to buy an existing yacht and refit it for its purpose, which is to explore the Galapagos.
A custom-built yacht, had we decided to go down that route, would have been very similar to Aqua Mare in terms of the size of the ship and spaciousness of the cabins. So, we were lucky to find an existing vessel that ticked all our boxes.
Can you say a little about your expansion plans?
We are always brainstorming, considering and exploring new remote locations to explore. Our ships can sail coastal and river waterways, so there are many available options to us.
This year, we plan to focus on the resumption of all five of Aqua’s ships in Indonesia, the Galapagos, Vietnam and Cambodia as well as the Peruvian Amazon. Some of our guests have had to postpone their trips for a few years now and we want to ensure them the experience of a lifetime and give our staff and crew some stability.
My desire is to ensure that all growth will be accompanied by an even stronger impact in remote regions, working on community projects that are self-sustainable and engaging in valuable partnerships with some of the world’s leading conservation programs.